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MONDAY, JUNE 26, 2006
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EDITORIAL

Technology may or may not make people more lonely

Would you say that the telephone has helped or hurt in your efforts to develop close, trusting relationships with other people?

We ask that question in light of the new General Social Survey, funded by the National Science Foundation. Interviews (face to face, incidentally) with 1,500 Americans found people more socially isolated today than two decades ago. They have fewer people in whom they can confide. When misfortune comes, many individuals suffer alone.

But listen to this comment from Lynn Smith-Lovin, a Duke University sociologist who helped conduct the survey: "We're not saying people are completely isolated. They may have 600 friends on Facebook.com and e-mail 25 people a day, but they are not discussing matters that are personally important." Facebook is a networking Web site.

However, Barry Wellman, a University of Toronto sociologist, cited the Internet as one means through which people's overall ties to others are actually growing. He said the average person today has about 250 ties with friends and relatives, with "division of labor ... Some people give emotional aid, some people give financial aid."

Your experience with the old-fashioned telephone may give a clue as to how other technologies will affect your own relationships once those technologies mature. Our guess is that technology has the potential to lessen social isolation, but it depends on how you use technology.

Bill and Hillary Clinton lead busy lives that keep them apart from each other most of the time. Problems that strain their marriage are well-known. Yet the former president and first lady use technology to keep in touch. "When their work schedules require that they be apart," their spokesmen said recently in a joint statement, "they talk all the time."

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